Monday, August 16, 2010

Capitalist Axiomatic Trapdoor

Martin Wolf is probably off somewhere getting some yacht time, though it seems he's reading something other than teen vampire novels.  

In his final book, Power and Prosperity, the late Mancur Olson argued that the state was a "stationary bandit". A stationary bandit is better than a "roving bandit", because the latter has no interest in developing the economy, while the former does. But it may not be much better, because those who control the state will seek to extract the surplus over subsistence generated by those under their control.

I guess "stationary bandit" would be another name for the capitalist axiomatic.  I actually don't see this as the state in its pure form, but as the more highly evolved strain that learned how to avoid killing off its host after interbreeding with the barbarians (who are more predators than parasites).  After all, states rise and fall.  Empires crumble under their own weight over and over again when they push the limits of exploitation.  The parasite does not start off with a mechanism that takes its host into account, and so like most, it chokes itself along with the economy that supports it.  Later mutations improve on the design.    


As for the rest of the post, I'm not sue how helpful I find it.  He basically says that the state is the the place where we come together to make decisions that effect all of us.  And he says that we cannot make those decisions a priori via a constitution that limits the state to what libertarians would see as its proper role.  In other words he's taking direct aim at the early Nozick (who later decided in The Examined Life that the state should also be able to function as a forum for our shared values).

Wolf claims that this is intellectually indefensible because some people want the state to do more.  On the face of it, this seems to me a terrible argument; you can't compensate me for being forced to work in a prison camp by the fact that lots of folks, including other prisoners, would like free health care.  But perhaps his larger point is that there has to be some hierarchy of coercion/freedom here -- we want rights other than just to free speech and a vote, we want to eat and not die of small pox as well -- freedom is pretty pathetic if it just means freedom from state coercion.  We have to be free to something as well.  I agree with this larger point (if I'm reading him correctly) as far as it goes, but you very quickly run into the problem of just what those other rights are.  We can multiply them as quickly as our bleeding little hearts desire, but just enumerating them ain't going to make it so.

Which bring us to the second objection to severely limiting the state from the outset, namely that it just doesn't work.  Eventually the constitution gets re-written.  Eventually you find that the government is spying on you and you still have to pay your taxes and that your neighbor couldn't give a damn if they haul you off just so long as it was the jews that lived on the other side of the street, this time.  This, I really do agree with -- limiting the state by declaring our "rights" is just fighting a war of attrition.  I don't know why we spend so much time talking about human rights and freedoms when it convinces no one.  Harry Frankfurt diagnosed the problem perfectly when he said that the defining characteristic of a bullshitter (as opposed to a mere liar) is that he doesn't care whether you actually believe him or not, he just wants you to give the appearance of believing him.  Human rights is just something we talk about amongst our privileged selves in order to convince each other that we really care just enough to calm us all down so that we can go back to doing what we were already doing before.  You're a good guy, I'm a good guy ... great, let's go have a beer.  The high minded speeches and UN dinner parties are immediately contradicted by the participants' daily actions, and the only shared social consciousness they really rally us to is a universal torpor and patience for this bullshit.

Ultimately I've come to see this question as a purely practical one.  We can safely forget all about deducing the moral limits of state intervention because the real world is not now and has never been moral.  Nobody cares what we think the state should do.  A certain reality is indeed created by shared bullshitting, but it is not durable in the face of a mechanism geared towards continually inflating itself.  The sovereign parasite will eat up everything it can get into its slavering leviathanical mouth.  Pretending that we can limit it with mere words and concepts is futile.  We have to take a more pragmatic and less idealistic approach.  

In this case, Wolf does that by simply accepting that the modern state will be necessarily quite large because it must enforce a large and legitimate social consensus -- healthcare, pensions, pollution, etc ... You'll notice that he nowhere addresses the question of where the limits of the state should lie.  His view is expansive.  What should the state do?   The state is a "protective" organization, and what it is protecting us from may begin with physical threats, but can come to encompass everything from indigent old age to poly trans fats, all filed under this one label of "protection".   

Naturally, I think this is the wrong direction to go in.  Not because of some philosophical difference with Wolf, but simply because I think it is a terrible idea pragmatically.  I think that a far better way both to get what we want out of the state and at the same time to limit the damage it can do, is to break it up into much smaller separate pieces.  I propose functional anarchy.

Let's consider this from the same perspective as Wolf for a second, and not worry about how to limit the state from the get go -- we will at first rely on the exit, voice, restraint curbs Hirschman pointed out.  Now, consider all the things we might want the state to do as part of protecting our shared values.  Maybe it should keep a record of who is sleeping with whom, or married to whom.  Maybe it should monitor all of our communications.  Maybe it should defend us against terrorists.  Maybe it should provide public goods like protection from pollution and financial fraud.    Maybe it should give us free parking.  Maybe it should give us healthcare, and keep us fed and provide for our old age, and ... there's really no limit here.  And my point is not that there should be some inherent philosophical limit, my point is simply that I don't see at all what these desires have to do with one another.  Why does it all have to be the same state?  If this were any other industry we would call it anti-competitive bundling.

Federalism goes some way to addressing this issue, obviously.  Slowly but surely though, the pretense that the Federal government was set up only to deal with the questions that explicitly could not be handled by the lower levels was dropped.  I think we need to resurrect that pragmatic and structural approach to limiting the state.  We should break it into many different pieces, geographically as well as by function.  After that, if there is a problem that requires the pension funding piece to come together with the marriage regulating piece, well, then, we'll have a summit of sorts, and negotiate that decision from the bottom up.  This way, instead of empty bitching about the right to this and the right to that, we'll actually have a part of the government -- a mini-government in fact -- dedicated to actually solving that specific problem that we as a society share a desire to solve.  And if it doesn't work, we'll know what to change.  We'll know which government is wasting our taxes and not fulfilling our shared vision.  

I submit that this disaggregation of government function will also vastly reduce the possibility of abuse -- not theoretically, but in actual fact.  For something like fascism to occur, all of these individual units would have to be aligned, despite the fact that they express radically different an even contradictory desires that we share.  If the marriage government (which and just for the record this one shouldn't even exist at all) and the healthcare government and the information retrieval government are all separate, it's suddenly much less threatening to be open and honest with each of them.  As long as we don't let the paranoid defense government hijack the whole works, each of these little governments will only be around to fulfill its very limited function.  There may be a continuous tendency to invent new desires, but as I also propose to fund these things separately, I think the creep would be easier to handle.

In the end, each of these little governments is like tiny monopoly.  They can be expected to suffer from all the problems that monopolies suffer from.  But at least we could avoid one giant monopoly that mixes all the desires and decisions of 300 million people into one great corrupt stew.  We might even *gasp* create a market for government that lets us separate and weigh the value of each part.

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